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I have a 9 ½ year old Labrador/Pitbull mix dog who has been healthy except for a few allergic reactions in the past.  More recently, she had a seizure.  Can this be related to the allergic reactions?  How can this be avoided?

Allergies are very common in dogs and can be triggered by many things, similar to people.  Seizures occur in dogs and cats relatively commonly as well and are very upsetting to witness.  Although both allergies and seizures are frequently seen, the two are unlikely to be related.  The most common type of seizure is a generalized seizure (formerly called grand mal seizures).  During this type of seizure, the animal suddenly loses consciousness and falls, often with the limbs extended.  The dog (or cat) often salivates, urinates or defecates.  They then progress to paddling or jerking of the limbs, and often display chewing movements.  The average seizure of this type lasts 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  There is another large class of seizures, called partial seizures, which vary greatly in appearance.  They may involve movement of one limb or one part of the body (i.e. the face), may be manifested as “fly-biting” or chewing, and the animal may or may not lose consciousness.  These often last seconds, but can last longer.  After a seizure, dogs and cats usually display what are called postictal signs.  They are temporary and may include disorientation, restlessness, wobbliness, blindness, or deafness.  These abnormal behaviors may resolve after several minutes, but may last for days, especially after prolonged/severe seizures.

There are several causes for seizures and it is important to identify any underlying cause of a seizure such low blood sugar, a brain tumor, or inflammation in the brain, so that treatment for the underlying cause can be started.  The most common cause of seizures in dogs is idiopathic epilepsy, meaning there is no underlying disease process causing the seizures.  The typical dog (there are some exceptions) diagnosed with epilepsy begins to have seizures between 1 and 5 years of age, often seizures at night or when the dog is resting or sleeping, and has normal behavior in between the seizures.  Epilepsy can be seen in any breed or mixed breed, but it is known to be inherited in the following breeds:  Beagle, Belgian Tervuren, Bernese Mountain Dog, Collie, Dachshund, English Springer Spaniel, Golden Retriever, Irish Wolfhound, Keeshound, Labrador Retriever, Poodle, Shetland Sheepdog and Vizsla.

If you witness your dog (or cat) having a seizure, it is advised you bring him to a veterinarian who will perform thorough physical and neurological examinations. Next, blood work is usually performed to rule out metabolic causes of seizures.  MRI or CT scan of the brain and analysis of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) may be indicated in patients where an underlying disease process is suspected.  However, often times, if a dog fits the classic description of an epileptic, these advanced tests are not needed.

Fortunately, the average short seizure is not life threatening.  However, multiple seizures that occur within a 24 hour period of time (called cluster seizures) or a single seizure that lasts more than 5 minutes (called status epilepticus) are life threatening events and need to be treated as emergencies.  If your pet ever experiences one of these situations, you must bring him to a veterinarian/emergency clinic immediately.

The decision to treat seizures varies among veterinarians and owners.  Therapy should be started once the risks of additional seizures outweigh the risks of treatment.  The risks of seizures include the seizures themselves as well as the emotional effects on the family.  The risks of therapy include drug side effects and the cost and effort of daily medication and monitoring.   The goal of therapy is to decrease the frequency and severity of seizures.  Ideally it would be to eliminate seizures completely, but less than one third of dogs treated for epilepsy become seizure-free.  Therefore, therapy is typically life-long.  If therapy is ever stopped, it must be done slowly, under the careful guidance of your veterinarian.  Seizure medication must never be stopped abruptly.  Several drugs are available to help control seizures and fortunately some of the newer drugs carry few side effects.  The cost of some of these newer drugs may be significant depending on the drug chosen and the size of your dog.  Treatment options are numerous and must be tailored to the individual dog and owner.  Because each patient responds to drugs differently, it is very much trial and error in the beginning to establish the best treatment protocol.  In some cases more than one drug is needed to control seizures.  It is important to have a good relationship with your veterinarian and discuss all drug options available.  Once medication is begun, future trips to the veterinarian are necessary to monitor how your pet is responding to the drug.

Kerry Bailey, DVM, DACVIM

Dr. Bailey received her DVM from Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine, completed an internship at Long Island Veterinary Specialists and a residency in Neurology at Cornell University School of Veterinary Medicine. She is a Diplomate of the ACVIM in Neurology. Dr. Bailey enjoys photography, cooking and baking. She has two cats, Laverne and Shirley.